Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

20 July 2012

X-Men Forever, v. 2: The Secret History of the Sentinels

Collects: X-Men Forever #6-10 (2009)

Released: March 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785136804

What is this?: Before they bury Wolverine, the X-Men dig deeper into the conspiracy against them and find Sentinels.

The culprits: Writer Chris Claremont and artists Paul Smith and Steve Scott

Whatever goodwill I had for X-Men Forever led me to buy X-Men Forever, v. 2: The Secret History of the Sentinels. After the newness of the concept of writer Chris Claremont’s elaborate What If? series (featuring the X-Men) wore off, what would be left?

The answer — as if you needed to be told — is writer Chris Claremont.

Claremont’s distinctive dialogue and cadences overwhelm everything else in Secret History. If this were a decade ago, when Claremont was returning the X-titles and this might do any good, an intervention would be in order, with his colleagues and editors showing him how his verbal tics and word balloons were hurting those around him. Given that an intervention is out of the question, Claremont needs someone to do something similar to what former Marvel editor Christopher Priest said his assistant, Maddie / Adam Blaustein, did with Peter David — winnow down his excesses while leaving the essential, appealing essence of the writer. Isn’t that what an editor is for? Perhaps not. In any event, it’s not worth the effort now; Claremont is who he is, his work is what it is, and almost everyone knows how he or she feels about that.

X-Men Forever, v. 2: The Secret History of the Sentinels coverFor those of you playing Claremont cliché bingo, using Secret History, I will serve as caller: Baseball. Vintage plane fetishism. X-Men cleaning up the wreckage of one of their fights. Obtrusive military slang. Danger Room malfunction. Bad accent (Gambit only, oddly, even though Nightcrawler and Cannonball are in this book). “Best at what I do” (non-Wolverine division). If you did not win, best of luck next time; I’m sure the “mind control” square on your card is certain to be covered next time.

The story involves the return of the Sentinels, as you would guess form the title. With Nick Fury part of the book’s cast, Claremont makes the dramatic choice to tie the Trask family, who created the Sentinels, to the Nazis. This seems unnecessary but ultimately harmless, but Claremont links a couple of other characters to World War II and the Fury’s old commando group: SHIELD agents Daisy Dugan and Tommy Juniper, the latter explicitly the great-nephew of Howler casualty Junior Juniper. If this were a SHIELD book, these generational links would be a great idea. But this isn’t a SHIELD book; it’s an X-Men book. And the X-Men are firmly tied to the beginning of Marvel’s ten-year (or twelve-year or fifteen-year) timeline. Delving into their past tends to lead into Xavier, Juggernaut, or Magneto stories, areas that have long since been overmined.

On the other hand, the X-Men do have one character with whom the theme of family does work: Cyclops, who ironically started as an orphan. The book’s most affecting scene is its final one, two pages of Cyclops flying to Alaska to visit his grandparents, father, and son in Alaska. Scott reuniting with his son, Nathan, and their interaction feels real and is touching because of that.

That last issue is the best in Secret History. In #10, the X-Men hold a funeral for Wolverine, who died all the way back in #1. It’s not a perfect issue, God knows — unrestrained by action, Claremont's word balloons overrun everything, like a sort of verbal kudzu. But given that the action in the rest of the book is nothing to remember, something different is welcome. The issue gives everyone a chance to take stock and reflect. The New Mutants, Excalibur, Fantastic Four, and an abbreviated Avengers team show up, as do various X-Men hangers-on and ex-X-Men. It feels like an important event without being too clichéd or overwrought; the funeral itself takes only two pages, with Cyclops giving the eulogy.

The rest of the volume is forgettable, at best. Issue #6 is an embarrassment of X-clichés, with the X-Men playing baseball among wreckage in the Danger Room, which as a matter of course malfunctions. The next three issues feature a battle against a Trask and her Sentinels, ending with a particularly anticlimactic fight that Jean Grey ends by throwing a tantrum.

The subplots are ignorable. Claremont tries to interest readers in a conspiracy vs. the X-Men, but it’s not working. “Continuum” is a dull name, there’s no hint of what exactly the group’s agenda or grief with the X-Men is, and revealing one of the conspiracy's heads is the newly introduced mother of another newly introduced character is underwhelming. The flashbacks — Logan teaming up with Fury’s Howling Commandos in World War II and Bolivar Trask showing his family his Sentinel works — are old hat and dull. The only interesting subplot involves the child Storm, who is trying to figure out what she is and where she should go; this actually gives Gambit a bit of relevance, since he serves as Storm’s hedonistic counsel against the moralistic X-Men. Forge and lil’ Storm’s reactions toward each other at Wolverine’s funeral is a nice touch.

The art is fine. Paul Smith draws #6 and #10, and he’s exactly the type of artist you’d expect Marvel to assign to Claremont’s nostalgia title. Smith worked with Claremont on Uncanny X-Men #165-70 and 172-5, including most of the issues from the classic X-Men: From the Ashes storyline. Smith’s art has changed over 30 years, of course, and at times it looks like it’s taken on some characteristics of fellow Claremont collaborator Rick Leonardi’s work. On the other hand, Steve Scott isn’t a classic Marvel artist, and the bulk of his work for the company comes on the Marvel Adventures line. He’s a good choice for that, as his line is clean and his characters are bright and attractive, easy to tell apart. It’s not a distinctive style, though, which might have been what Marvel was aiming for; if you’re reading Claremont in the 21st century, do you really want something to distract you from Claremont’s plot and words? No, you do not; Claremont’s the feature here.

Secret History isn’t bad; its sin is larger. This book is just not that interesting, and the greatest emotion it arouses in me is occasional annoyance. Some will feel the warm flush of nostalgia when they read Secret History, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m well insulated against that warmth, however, and I think most readers are as well.

Rating: X-Men symbol Half X-Men symbol (1.5 of 5)

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13 July 2012

Batman: King Tut's Tomb

Collects: Brave and the Bold #164 and 171, Batman #353, and Batman Confidential #26-8 (1980, 1981, 1982, 2009)

Released: February 2010 (DC)

Format: 128 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401225773

What is this?: King Tut — last seen on Batman ’66 — is unleashed upon Gotham, and three ‘80s issues drawn by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez are also included.

The culprits: Writers Nunzio DeFelippis, Christina Weir, Gerry Conway, and J.M. DeMatteis and artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez

The copy of Batman: King Tut’s Tomb that I have is an odd duck, and I’m not sure how it ended up in my hands.

What I have — and cannot find a record of anywhere online — is a hardback version of King Tut’s Tomb. Not only can I not find a record of the hardback, but I can’t find a reason for it to exist. King Tut’s Tomb reprints a three-issue storyline from Batman Confidential, a second-tier Bat-title from before the New 52 reboot that I was only vaguely aware existed. (In some places on the Web, King Tut’s Tomb is listed as Batman Confidential, v. 6.) Three issues is not enough to fill a hardback (or even a trade paperback), of course, so the book also contains two issues of Brave and the Bold and one issue of Batman from thirty years ago. One has a tenuous plot connection to the main Batman Confidential story; the other two have none. The real connection is that all six issues were penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lozpez.

Batman: King Tut’s Tomb coverIs Garcia-Lopez’s reputation strong enough to base an entire book off of? If so, I would expect his name in the title. On the other hand, this is part of the reprint series for Batman Confidential … but the words Batman Confidential show up only in tiny print in the indicia. The relatively obscure stories filling out the book make me think DC’s reprint editors were casting about desperately for something to bring up the page count, but if that’s the case, why reprint a secondary title in hardback when half the book is almost random? I mean — not that I’m complaining — Birds of Preycan’t get a hardcover, and that’s a title with an identity and a fan base.

Oh, well. It’s only slightly less strange if it’s a trade. A corporate decision, most likely, in both senses of the word.

What Birds of Prey did not have, however, was an artist as good as Garcia-Lopez. Thirty years is a long time in the life of an artist, and Garcia-Lopez’s style has definitely shifted. In the ‘80s stories, Garcia-Lopez’s art is very much in the style of Jim Aparo, whom he was filling in for on Brave and the Bold: a lithe but powerful Batman in a world of clear, solid lines. Even in Gotham and outer space, Batman’s world is bright and appealing. Though I have no nostalgia for that era, Garcia-Lopez’s art is comfortingly familiar.

In the Batman Confidential stories, Garcia-Lopez’s pencils are updated, modern — more Jim Lee than Jim Aparo. Batman is muscular and not as flexible, the backgrounds are busier, the cheesecake more plentiful. The panels are larger, with the occasional splash page. There is little to distinguish Garcia-Lopez’s modern style from a dozen others, except that his storytelling is superior. Present or past, there is little doubt what is supposed to be happening in the story. The older layouts, with more panels, are clear, but Garcia-Lopez knows how to tell a story even with the emphasis on flash. It explains why he has been getting work for 30 years.

It’s a shame the stories aren’t better, thought. The eponymous Batman Confidential stories have about two issues worth of interest dropped into three issues. Writers Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir finally bring King Tut, an Egyptological-centered villain, from the ‘60s Batman TV show to the comics, an event that someone was probably waiting for. (Maybe.) It's the standard tale of presumed reincarnation and insane, petty revenges, and it’s not that interesting. But King Tut uses riddles related to the Hymn of Aten (an ancient song dedicated to Aten, an Egyptian god), which leads to the Riddler’s involvement in the case. The interaction between Batman and the Riddler is fun to watch, despite my nagging concern of where this fits in the Riddler’s history, since he was a semi-legitimate PI the last I had seen of him. However, the total of their intelligences is less than the sum of its parts. Riddler blunders into death traps, Batman is forced to rely on Riddler for information the plot would usually require him to remember himself — that sort of thing.

The ‘80s issues are a mixed bag. The two Brave and the Bold stories are quite forgettable, and by next week I’ll probably deny ever having read them. Batman teams with Hawkman in #164 to protect King Tut’s treasures, but aliens steal the entire museum to get back a pair of their artifacts. It’s a wacky, cosmic mix-up with a “cosmic hole” and possessions by alien spirits, but of course writer J.M DeMatteis ends it satisfactorily and forgettably. Writer Gerry Conway uses Professor Carter Nichols and his time-traveling hypnotism to send Batman back to the Civil War in #171, in which he meets a famous Union nurse and Scalphunter. A few moments of visceral satisfaction — Batman reconstructing the jaws of a few Rebels — can’t compensate for how boring the story is, especially since I have no idea why I should care about Scalphunter. (The character is named that only on the cover; in the story, he’s Ke-Woh-No-Tay.)

Conway’s Batman #353 is probably the best single issue in the collection, with Garcia-Lopez’s long-chinned Joker stealing the show. Conway writes the Joker as murderous and egomaniacal, and he almost wins … what more can you ask for in a Joker story? There's a subplot about Boss Rupert Throne getting back into Gotham politics, which was probably very exciting back in 1982 but serves only as a distraction in this collection.

So I still don’t understand why my local library has this in hardback. (Special library edition? There’s no indication that one was published, but who knows.) On its own merits, this isn’t a bad collection, although given the shift in styles, Garcia-Lopez’s art is not strong enough to unify King Tut’s Tomb despite its quality. The stories are mostly mediocre if inoffensive. For all you Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez fans, you’re in luck; for all you fans of Batman Confidential, you kinda get shafted. For the rest of us, this book is a big shrug.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol (2 of 5)

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